A Christmas Carol (1938): A Classic Christmas Film For All

by Paul Batters

Christmas is one of these. I’ve always looked on Christmas as a good time, a kind, charitable, forgiving, pleasant time. It’s the only time when people open their hearts freely. The only time when men and women seem to realize that all human beings are really members of the same family. And that being members of the same family, they owe each other some measure of warmth and solace‘. Fred (Barry MacKay)

The festive season is one which offers a wonderful array of classic film to enjoy. It has become a staple (at least in our household) to enjoy these films again, as they not only revive the spirit of Christmas but allow us to re-think the year that has passed, give us the chance to reflect on the future and count our blessings in the meantime. Certainly, 2020 has been a year where we have needed hope for the future and needed Christmas to brighten our spirits after such an annus horribilis.

Like other classic film fans, we will also watch It’s A Wonderful Life, Miracle On 34th Street and White Christmas. Yet there is one film which warms my heart and tells me that Christmas is truly here – and that is the 1938 version of A Christmas Carol.

The famous Dickens tale has been filmed numerous times and it is one which is powerful in its’ simplicity and can touch anyone who seeks redemption and a chance to change oneself. Directed by Edwin L. Marin and produced by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, A Christmas Carol is a relatively honest and beautifully produced adaption of the Dickens novella. The miserly, mean-spirited and cynical Ebenezer Scrooge (Reginald Owen) has long been lost to his avarice and the milk of human kindness also long-soured. The question emerges whether Scrooge is beyond redemption and the earliest encounter with him reveals a man without a hint of sentimentality nor any love for humanity. His treatment not only of his kind and long-suffering employee, Bob Cratchit (Gene Lockhart) but also his vivacious nephew Fred (Barry Mackay), suggests a man who has rejected all joys and only finds comfort in his ledgers and business affairs. His meanness is evident in his refusal to give to charity as well as his nephew’s invitation to Christmas lunch.

In contrast to Scrooge, his clerk Bob Cratchit is a kind and loving father, whose dedication to his family, particularly his crippled son, Tiny Tim (Terry Kilburn) is touching. He will spare them the pain and difficulties of his own employment with Scrooge and even says nothing when he is cruelly fired on Christmas Eve. He still finds joy in the spirit of Christmas and will not let Scrooge’s unkindness ruin his family’s Christmas, recognising the importance of the season.

Scrooge will be tested by the spirits Of Christmas Past, Present and Future, all of whom offer the chance for him to change his ways. Initially, the terrifying visitation of his long-dead business partner Jacob Marley (Leo G. Carroll) will be the beginning of these proceedings, yet even Scrooge refuses to acknowledge Marley’s ghost. It will take all three ghosts to test Scrooge and make him see the error of his ways.

Whilst not strictly an A-picture when considering the incredible stable of talent at MGM in 1938, it is a testimony to MGM that the production values are all there and it reflects Mayer’s desire to make family films. It is also reflective of the many literary-based productions which were made during the period, avoiding some of the darker and grittier aspects of Dickens’ tales but certainly appealed to a safer, warmer and rose-coloured view of ‘ye olde England’. At any rate, the MGM dream factory offered escapism during a time that was grim enough, with the Depression and the growing concerns emerging with world affairs in the 1930s. The streets of London have the quaint and snow-globe feel and look of a Christmas card, with the children playing in those streets not exactly the starving street-urchins to be found in Dickens’ stories. Visually, it’s a beautiful film, aided by the musical score resplendent with Christmas carols and superb casting, even without drawing on the many stars that MGM had.

A rather portly Gene Lockhart gives a heart-warming performance as Bob, supported by his real-life wife Kathleen Lockhart as Mrs. Cratchit. Look carefully and you’ll see his daughter, a young June Lockhart, playing his daughter on-screen as well. Again, the scenes of the family excited around the Christmas table and happy to be together are beautifully filmed, if not a little syrupy. Terry Kilburn, who in the following year would play his most memorable and famous role in Goodbye Mr. Chips, is also effective as one of Dickens’ most sympathetic characters. Again, the scenes of the Cratchit family at Christmas are designed to evoke the joy of Christmas, as much as offer a powerful counter to the mean-spiritedness of Ebenezer Scrooge. But the scenes with the Cratchits are more than biscuit tin moments. The pain of Bob Cratchit dealing with the loss of his beloved Tiny Tim is heart-rending and delivered with a balance that will not only test Scrooge’s twisted soul but our own consciousness of how precious family is.

The remainder of the cast is testimony to the depth of talent at MGM, even if they are nominally a supporting cast. Barry Mackay is particularly outstanding as Fred, and the sheer joy he brings to the role is as infectious as the Christmas spirit should be. His moments with his fiancée, Bess (Lynne Carver) are sweet and it is impossible not to like him. But there are plenty of other great moments from strong character actors and actresses. Ronald Sinclair does a fine job as the young Scrooge and Forrester Harvey has a wonderful turn as Scrooge’s first employer, Old Fezziwg. Ann Rutherford, famous for the Andy Hardy series and as Scarlett O’Hara’s sister in Gone With The Wind, is an interesting choice as the spirit of Christmas Past. However, Lionel Braham as the spirit of Christmas Present is outstanding casting and true testimony to one of the strengths of the film. Big and boisterous, Braham brings the role alive with his large grin and equally strong glare, admonishing Scrooge with one withering look for his cruelty to the Bob Cratchit. Many have played the spirit of Christmas Past but certainly Braham brings an aplomb to the role which does justice to Dickens.

Of course, the most important casting is that of Reginald Owen as Scrooge. It is well-known that Lionel Barrymore was to play Scrooge but the actor’s crippling arthritis made it impossible. No doubt he would have been outstanding in the role and Owen had huge shoes to fill. Yet Owen is solid, delivering to the screen a short-tempered, cantankerous and callous Scrooge with a blasphemous attitude to Christmas and the whole of humanity. Owen doesn’t hold back and offers a measured performance. Watch as he allows the cracks to appear in Scrooge’s demeanour before reverting to type. Owen allows the character to follow its’ arc, going through the transformation that will unfold.

For many, the 1949 version with Alistair Sim is the definitive version and it is indeed outstanding and achieves a deeper reach in terms of the Dickens’ story and atmosphere. Some of the key elements which detail Scrooge’s descent into cold-hearted cruelty and callousness, such as his fiancée leaving him as a young man are missing. Likewise, the thieves who go through his belongings after Scrooge is ‘dead’ are also missing. As already mentioned, these were omitted to not only trim the film down but to also keep with MGM’s creed of producing ‘family films’. At any rate, the film illustrates the thematic concerns well enough whilst conceptually creating a family film for the Christmas season. MGM were masters at producing such polished films, which would be palatable to all audiences and gentle enough for children to watch. It is a classic example of how the studio system, particularly MGM, worked to produce such films, within a certain formula but with creativity and talent as well.

What the 1938 version offers is a heartful and nostalgic version of the timeless Dickens’ tale. Whilst a little saccharine at times (and admittedly a little too saccharine), A Christmas Carol still works through its’ sentimentality and warmth as a Christmas classic. It doesn’t pretend to be anything else and allows everyone to find the child in themselves, which Christmas gives everyone a chance to do every year. To not seek out our inner child puts us in danger of turning into a Scrooge, which is exactly the point of the tale in the first place. A Christmas Carol, thus becomes a beautiful invitation to allow the Christmas spirit to encompass us all, find the joy in the season and allow some sentimentality to flow through our lives, particularly when we need it most.

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.

4 thoughts on “A Christmas Carol (1938): A Classic Christmas Film For All

  1. I prefer the Alastair Sim version because of its psychological depth. Had Thalberg lived, he would have undoubtedly insisted on a film of greater substance. (I am no lover of: ‘family’ films, whether produced by Metro or other studios. Neither am I fond of Dickens, although I think the David Lean realisation of: ‘Great Expectations’ one of the finest films ever made.)

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    1. I also prefer the Alastair Sim version and agree that it has depths that hold greater textual integrity to Dickens than the 1938 version. Yet the 1938 version still holds a fond place in my heart simply for its sentimentality.

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  2. While comparison of the 1938 “A Christmas Carol” to the later 1951 British version (known as “Scrooge” in the U.K.) is inevitable, it is also unfair. Every version of the Dickens story pales against the 1951 film, with Alistair Sim’s peerless, definitive interpretation of Scrooge, and the perfectly recreated Victorian atmosphere. But, on its own merits, the earlier Hollywood version offers a great deal to enjoy, as your excellent article outlines. The film is certainly visually beautiful, with, as you say, a “quaint and snow-globe feel”, a very appropriate description. As you indicated, there are omissions from Dickens’ original narrative, and consequently the running time of the film is very brief. But the main gist of the story remains, and the general message of the tale comes across well (as you mentioned, with perhaps a little too much saccharine, but a higher dose of sentimentality is quite permissible in the Christmas season.) I must confess, however, that I find Terry Kilburn more grating than endearing as Tiny Tim; Glyn Dearman as Tiny Tim in the 1951 version was much more appealing.

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    1. Thank you Robert and agree that comparisons are unfair and indeed even unhelpful. It’s like comparing it with the Muppet Christmas Carol or an animated version. The 1938 version has its own value and can be enjoyed in that atmosphere alone. Terry Kilburn is a little over the top with some unintentionally funny moments too. Yet it’s loved by me for its sentimentality which as we both agree is permissible at Christmas! And I hope you enjoyed yours as well!

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